Photo contests are among the more controversial topics within the photography community. One of the most common complaints is that some photo contests are nothing more than a “rights grab”; meaning that the sponsor of the contest inserts legal language within the fine print that essentially allow them the right to sub-license, redistribute and use all photos submitted however they wish while freeing themselves from any potential liability arising from the publication of the images. For the sponsor of the contest that’s great because they can build a stock photo library that they can profit off of for almost nothing because let’s face it, most contests award a measly amount of prizes compared to how many quality images they get in return. Photographers on the other hand are getting ripped off for submitting to such contests and not to mention can potentially open themselves up to legal liabilities for the publication of those images because they give up control over where the images will be published by agreeing to such terms. (note: I’m not a lawyer so take this with a grain of salt.) These contests aren’t small time operations either as some are sponsored by some very well known organizations. Not all photo contests serve as rights grabs however so there are some that are legitimately there to benefit the photographer such as PDN, Communication Arts Photo Annual and the ICP awards.
How much benefit photo contests are to photographers is debatable though there are some that milk the exposure for all it’s worth. One photographer claims to be “The Most Awarded Photographer in History”, several claim to be “The Master Photographer” and do very well when it comes to the sale of fine art prints to tourists. While the more common way that photographers use this exposure is to refer to themselves as an award-winning photographer in their bio. Another thing to consider when entering contests is who the judges are and the audience for the publication of the images will be targeting hence why I cited PDN and the CA Photo Annual. For editorial, commercial and stock photographers the readers of those publications are your target audience so there is potentially good exposure to be had from entering those contests though there are no guarantees of gaining additional business from the exposure.
As for myself, I believe I’ve entered only three photo contests to date but haven’t won anything. I’m selective about these contests for all the reasons listed above, not to mention that if you don’t feel the contest will help then it’s essentially throwing money away that could be best served for other marketing activities. The odds of winning the top prize in photo contests are not much greater than winning the lottery so consider how many other entries will be selected for publication because that is a more realistic goal.
And back to my first point… always read the fine print before submitting to photo contests.